Finding a camp for the homeless in Austin

This is an excerpt from the May 18 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

Today the city released 45 city-owned properties under consideration for sanctioned homeless encampments. Here’s the list:

And here’s a map made by Brandon Farmahini of those locations:

When sanctioned encampments on city property were first discussed the other week, a couple people joked about Lions Municipal Golf Course, which is part of the Brackenridge Tract owned by UT but leased by the city. One Council aide told me that using part of the tract for a temporary camp was being seriously discussed. Well, I’m not surprised to not see it on the list.

But there are plenty of other sites on the list that will be plenty controversial. For instance, Duncan Park. There are already lots of homeless people who hang out in and around the park and along Shoal Creek Trail. Turning the park into a dedicated homeless encampment likely wouldn’t go over well.

Likewise, giving up existing park facilities — Givens, Parque Zaragoza, Walter Long, Onion Creek — is sure to make neighboring residents and park users unhappy.

The cost of 10 encampments

Although Council has asked staff to propose at least one site in each Council district, I wonder if Council will remain committed to the idea of setting up 10 different sites once they’ve really thought through the financial and political implications.

In a memo to City Council on Friday, Dianna Grey, the city homelessness strategy officer, offered some insights on creating sanctioned encampments for unhoused people. The big takeaway is that this isn’t going to be simple, politically, financially or logistically.

Here is city staff’s back-of-the-napkin estimate for what it would cost per year to operate a campground.

Grey says that the estimate is in line with what it costs to operate the state encampment in Montopolis. But she cautions that the estimate only reflects “known costs,” and that there will likely be unanticipated expenses that drive the total cost up.

“One-time costs to establish encampment sites may include, but are not limited to, extending access to electricity and water lines, site grading, installation of perimeter fencing, creating or improving vehicular access, and mitigation of wildfire and/or flood risk.”

Assuming the estimate is somewhat accurate, 10 separate encampments would likely cost the city over $20 million a year. Dedicating that money to these encampments leaves less money for the city to focus on the ideal solution, which is permanent housing and services.

The easiest thing to do politically would be to set up a couple of sites in isolated areas of the eastern crescent, just as Abbott did. Some of the 45 sites certainly fit that description. The political ideal is for there to be as few neighbors as possible and for whatever neighbors exist to be poor and politically disengaged.

And that’s probably exactly what Council would do if we still had an at-large system where every member was elected in citywide spring contests dominated by West Austin voters. But now we have four Council members who represent eastern districts; they are unlikely to accept that it’s up to their districts to host all of the people criminalized by West Austin voters (without whom Prop B wouldn’t have even gotten on the ballot, let alone passed).

This debate highlights the pros and cons of the district-based representation put in place six years ago. On one hand, it reduces the implicit bias that the former system had for the wealthier and whiter parts of town. On the other hand, it makes it harder to reach a compromise because each member is advocating for a different constituency.

This is an excerpt from the May 18 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

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